Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why How Long You Have Lived In Fort McMurray is Irrelevant

I know the title of this post is a bit bold, and perhaps even a bit inflammatory. I know even saying it risks me receiving more hate mail, something I had the unfortunate occasion to receive for the first time recently (more on that later). I also know, though, that this sentiment has been in my heart and head for some time, and the time has come to put it onto paper (internet?) and commit to it. In Fort McMurray, people, how long you have lived here simply doesn't matter when it comes to discussions of our future - and here is why.

A few weeks ago my buddy Nolan Haukeness wrote an op-ed column stating almost this exact thing, except he talked about the "born heres" versus the "moved heres". It's a terrific piece, and I suggest you read it - but after reading it I felt I had more to say. Why? Because I believe that length of residency, whether you were born here or arrived here a few months ago, is totally irrelevant in the current discussions - at least in the sense that either gives you special status or input when it comes to discussions on the future of this community.

There are certainly people who have been here for decades, and those who have been born here. And those people have seen tremendous changes, cycles of boom and bust, times of prosperity and times of trouble. And so their opinion on this place is informed by experience and time, and so it should be given proper credence for that reason. However, there is another side to this. If you have been born here or lived here for decades there is every chance you are now living in a bit of a bubble. That's pretty natural, actually, and nothing to be ashamed about. And that is where new residents come in.

New residents, whether they have been here for 6 months or 6 years, bring with them not experience of this community but experience of other communities - other cities and provinces and countries. They see this community with fresh eyes, and may note things that those who are long-time residents may fail to see because so often we don't really "see" the things that change so gradually. New residents bring with them another perspective, informed perhaps not by an experience of THIS community but of other places that are both similar and different. And that is the beauty of it - because the future should not be determined by those who are "new" or those who are "old" but rather by all of us as we open a dialogue informed by the experience of all.

Too often in this community you see length of residency used as a "trump card". The phrase "well, I've been here x years", said in an arch tone denoting authority, troubles me for many reasons. It is wonderful that you have been here for "x" years, but someone has likely been here for "x" years longer. And of course it also means if someone was born here they automatically trump anyone who has moved here (a situation that could delight many toddlers as given our birth rate it means they should pretty much be in charge of the whole schmozzle). And then I always wonder if we should base it on percentage of life lived here, as opposed to years, meaning someone who moved here young and spent 75% of their life here would trump someone who came here later in life and has only been here 50% of their life. And if we make it generational then we really run into a situation fraught with difficulties, as the natural conclusion there is the First Nations people pretty much trump us all. So, is length of residency as determinant in value of opinions really the game we want or need to play here? Why do we need the trump card at all? And then there is another statistic that will soon make the whole discussion even more irrelevant, as if this community meets current growth projections every person here will be outnumbered by those who are new.

This community is anticipated to add some 130,000 residents over the next 18 years. Some will be born here, true, but the majority will come here from other places. This place will be full of new residents - and so we all need to get over our thinking that how long we have been here matters, because it simply doesn't, and it won't. If we adhere to thinking that our length of residency has some sort of sway we will find ourselves outnumbered, outvoted, and outdistanced by those who have been here less time - and so, perhaps, this is the time we need to begin the dialogue that leaves out the words "I've been here for x years".

I understand why we do it - even I catch myself saying that I've been here for a decade, although more for context than control, and recently I have started to not say it at all, only giving that number if asked directly. I was a bit surprised recently to receive anonymous hate mail (and maybe in a later blog post we will have a discussion about the level of cowardice shown by choosing to attack someone personally in an anonymous way) and one of the things they pointed out was my audacity in having an opinion after having been here only "a few short years". I was taken aback, as those years represent almost 1/4 of my life, and almost the longest time I have lived anywhere - but of course it's all relative as they may have been here for 20 years as opposed to my ten. And then again their 20 years may seem scanty compared to someone else's 30, or 40, or lifetime. What troubled me was the theory that only a certain length of time conferred on anyone the right to an opinion, private or public, as I could not help but wonder who set this arbitrary length? Who determined it?

Like I said at the beginning this post may raise some hackles. I do think, though, this needs to be said. I do have the audacity to have an opinion, and I will never disrespect the opinion of another regardless of how long they have been here (and in fact I think mere visitors to our city merit listening to as well, although we may choose to dismiss their opinions). The point is that our opinions may differ, but our right to hold them is the same no matter if we have been here 2 months, 2 years, 2 decades, or cradle to grave. The decisions we make now should be informed by the experience and wisdom and voices of all, not just those who are "new" or "old" (even those terms make me cringe with their subjective nature).

My fundamental belief is this: If you care enough about this community to call it home then you deserve to have an opinion, share it, and be respected. Others may not agree with it, and they may argue it - but your length of residency does not minimize your opinion or lend it special credence.

We are now making decisions in this community that will affect not just current residents, but future residents - our children, their children, and everyone else who chooses to make this home. Let's use our collective experiences, from here and around the world, and our wide knowledge, gleaned both in this community and others, to make decisions that will stand the test of time, make us proud, and show that we can engage in a dialogue that is open, productive, and inclusive. Let's make this place a place that we can all call home, regardless of how long we have been here - and let's do it now, at this special point in time, a time we can all point back to in the future and say "I was here when they did that, and we did it together".


  1. Wonderful - thank you <3
    I agree - building a great community is important. I love the new ideas and energy we are welcoming into the community.
    Brilliant minds - brilliant people - brilliant community.

  2. Well said. This post reminds me of just how goofy this whole "I've lived here for X years" argument is when I think of my time living in Nunavut it makes it seem especially ridiculous. I knew southerners there that thought they knew everything.....and typically left after a year or less and people who had lived there 10 or 20 years yet seems ignorant of the language, culture and politics of the place. Anyhow, not sure this is the best of analogies but just my two cents.

  3. I have had this article on my mind since reading it. Especially this weekend when I heard someone tell me they were only came here for 5 years -- you also hear that a lot. I am only here for 2 years/5 years etc. Not sure they buy into the idea of Fort McMurray as home. Their hearts are else where -- that perhaps is another side of it.

    I also people use the question, how long have you been here as a conversation starter.

    1. I agree Karen - it can and often is used as a conversation starter. It is when it is used as a tool to exert some power or influence that I get concerned about creating a divide between us as opposed to finding common ground.